Revolution in Rhode Island


Not long ago I stood atop Acote's Hill, in the town of Chepachet, Rhode Island. Looking to the southeast, toward Providence, one sees thickly forested rolling hills. I tried to imagine the thoughts of Thomas Dorr as he watched those hills, looking for the 3,000 militiamen he knew had been sent to crush him and his few score partisans. No battle was fought there; knowing the odds were insurmountable, Dorr fled and his followers dispersed. Thus ended a dark and now largely forgotten chapter in American history.

Acote's Hill is a small hill; Chepachet is a small town, hardly the sort of place in which one would envision great issues of political philosophy being resolved, but it was there that the last battle of what is now called "Dorr's war," or "Dorr's rebellion," took place. In the early 1840's Thomas Wilson Dorr and his partisans engaged in a struggle for constitutional revision in Rhode Island. The climax of this movement was a small rebellion, as rebellions go, hardly deserving the title of "war." Yet some great questions were decided.

In the United States in 1840 people were constantly attempting the previously untried, continually questioning the relationship of the individual and the State, forever optimistic in their belief that human institutions are perfectible. This was the era of Robert Owen's Oneida experiment, of the establishment of "New Zion" in the desert of Utah by the persecuted Mormons and of Brook Farm in Massachusetts.

In 1828 Andrew Jackson had been swept into office by a people tired of a government run by an aristocratic (though highly talented) elite. Jackson, who was in no way a common man, was hailed by the common people as their champion. For eight years he ruled the country with an imperiousness not dreamed of by his Jeffersonian predecessors. "Old Hickory" sparked the emotions of the carpenter, the dockworker, and the day-laborer as had no president before him. It was no longer necessary to be a Virginia gentleman to aspire to positions of power—this was the age of the common man. Every man was as good as his neighbor, no matter if that neighbor were more intelligent or better educated or more propertied.

The Jacksonian influence was felt everywhere, not least in Rhode Island, where the people were beginning to chafe under a government whose constitution dated back to the royal charter issued to John Clarke by King Charles II of England in 1663. It had not since been amended or altered in any way, even during the American Revolution, and was objectionable on several counts.

First, it limited suffrage to white males of majority who owned a minimum of $134 in land, and to their firstborn sons. A whole new class of prosperous merchants, lawyers, and other professional persons found itself with no voice in its government. Further, and more significantly, there had arisen a very large class of what we would today call blue-collar workers—carpenters, mechanics, blacksmiths, grocers. Since the early 1830's their desire to take their place in the political sun had been steadily growing, until by 1840 they were ready to seize it, by force if necessary.

Second, the population centers of Rhode Island had shifted considerably in the nearly 180 years since the granting of the charter. Newport, one of the earliest towns in Rhode Island, was represented out of all proportion to its 1840 population. Providence and the upstate counties in general had greatly increased their population and wealth (and tax burden!) relative to the downstate, Newport area, but they had no more delegates to the state legislature than they had had almost 200 years earlier.

Finally, even if the Charter government, as it came to be called, had wished to amend its constitution to rectify some of these inequities there was no legal machinery for doing so. Since the charter had been granted by the Crown it could only be altered upon successful petition to the Crown. The American Revolution had totally severed the old relationships, however, and, in the case of Rhode Island, had not replaced them with any effective substitute. The states were deemed sovereign, both by themselves and by the Federal government. This was a fine dilemma. There was no outside agency to initiate or authorize change, and there was no internal legal means of altering the highest law of the state. Hence no change was possible—so reasoned the ruling conservative clique, at least.

Throughout the 1830's there was increasing agitation for change. Following the landslide reelection of Jackson in 1832, nonlandholders throughout Rhode Island clamored ever more insistently for the vote. One early leader of this so-called workingmen's movement, a Providence carpenter named Seth Luther, championed the cause of the disenfranchised in a series of fiery speeches and pamphlets in 1833. Basing many of his arguments on those of Jefferson, he claimed that "the people" have the right to establish, and alter, the law of the land.

The first organized opposition to the Charter government arose in 1834 with the formation of the Rhode Island Constitutional party. Leaders of this party consisted for the most part of business and professional men from the northern parts of the state. They were moderate, but committed to political reform. During the next few years, however, their proposals were uniformly rejected by the conservative majority in the legislature. The Constitutional party, blocked at every turn, finally collapsed in 1837 as a result of a landslide vote in Rhode Island against the policies of President Martin Van Buren. (The Constitutionalist leaders, including Thomas Dorr, were believed to be partial to Van Buren.)

For the next three years there was little organized agitation for reform. The Whigs and Democrats, in the absence of any countervailing political force, drifted along, unworried about rights or principles as long as they held the reins of power.

The election of 1840, "Tippicanoe and Tyler too," helped set the stage for a revival of the suffrage movement in Rhode Island. Observes Peter J. Coleman in The Transformation of Rhode Island, "Certainly the fact that less than 9,000 freemen voted in one of the most fiercely contested elections in early American history did not go unnoticed, especially since the suffrage law forced about 15,000 of the 25,000 adult males in the state to stand on the sidelines as mere observers."

A new group, calling itself the Rhode Island Suffrage Association, was formed in the spring of 1840. Local branches were set up, and appeals were made to the General Assembly for constitutional reform, suffrage extension, and popular rights. The legislature continued to ignore the reformers, although it did call for a constitutional convention to be held early in 1842. Inasmuch as delegates to this convention would be chosen only by those who already enjoyed suffrage, and not by those who were seeking it, it held little promise of any meaningful reform. The Association responded in 1841 by stepping up its activities. Numerous rallies and mass meetings were held throughout Rhode Island, both north and south.

By mid-1841, all appeals to the legislature having failed, the reformers began seriously to consider moving in a new, and far more radical, direction.

Thomas Dorr was an unlikely, and for some time a reluctant, revolutionary. Born on November 5, 1805, a native of Providence, he graduated from Harvard College in 1824 with a degree in mathematics. He then studied law in New York City and later in Providence, where he was admitted to the Rhode Island bar in 1827. Dorr was elected as a Whig to the Rhode Island House of Representatives in 1834, where he was instrumental in obtaining the passage of a significant bank reform statute (1836). This did not greatly endear him to a number of the more conservative financial interests in the state, distrusting as they did change of almost any kind.

From 1834 until the demise of the Constitutional party, Dorr was an activist in the suffrage and constitutional reform movement. His association with the party ended rather disastrously with the elections of 1836, in which he had run for an at-large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives and was soundly thrashed. When he was invited in late 1841 to enter the elections for the Suffrage Association's constitutional convention, he accepted eagerly.

In early 1841 the General Assembly, facing continuous pressure from the reformers, called for a constitutional convention to be held later that year. This maneuver had worked well in 1824 and 1834, venting political frustrations without actually changing anything. The Suffrage Association, not so easily mollified, called its own People's Convention in the spring of 1841 for the purpose of writing a completely new constitution for Rhode Island. Delegates were elected from across the state. The convention, chaired by Thomas Dorr, completed its work in November 1841 and submitted the People's Constitution to an extra-legal election in which all legally resident males who had reached their majority were permitted to vote.

Two excerpts from article I, the statement of principles, illustrate the extent to which the framers based their arguments on those of Jefferson and the Declaration of Independence (emphasis mine).

All men are created free and equal, and are endowed by their Creator with certain natural, inherent, and unalienable rights, among which are life, liberty, the acquisition of property, and the pursuit of happiness. Government cannot create or bestow these rights…but it is instituted for the stronger and sure defense of the same.…

All political power and sovereignty are originally vested in, and of right belong to, the people.…The people have, therefore, an unalienable and indefeasible right, in their original, sovereign, and unlimited capacity, to ordain and institute government, and in the same capacity to alter, reform or totally change the same.…

Among other features, the new constitution granted suffrage to all adult (white) male citizens of one year's residence; eliminated the inequitable apportionment of seats in the state legislature; provided strong guarantees for the freedoms of assembly, religion, press, and private property; included procedures for constitutional amendment.

The People's Constitution was ratified in December 1841 by the incredible vote of 13,947 to 52. This total includes an estimated 5,000 of approximately 8,000 freemen (those legally permitted to vote in state elections). The vote was probably so lopsided because most of those who took the trouble to vote did so in order to affirm their desire for change. A significant percentage of Rhode Island's freemen simply ignored the whole affair rather than lend it the appearance of legitimacy by their participation. Then, too, many of the conservatives felt that this movement would soon run its course and that it would go away more quickly if they just pretended it didn't exist. There is no gainsaying the fact, however, that the Dorrites had now won a significant victory. Nearly 14,000 votes out of an estimated 22,000 to 25,000 potential voters, especially in an election not sanctioned by the state, was a mandate that could not be ignored.

Meanwhile, the Freeman's Convention of the Charter government, having convened in November 1841, had been drifting along, contemplating no reforms of substance. By February 1842, however, pressured by the success and apparent threat posed by the People's Constitution, the delegates moved to a more moderate position on the key issues of suffrage extension and apportionment. But it was too little, too late. In a legally convened referendum held in March 1842 the Freeman's Constitution was defeated, by a narrow margin, 8,689 to 8,013. The Charterites had made a crucial concession in permitting all white males of majority to vote, rather than limiting the elections to freemen only. In doing so they implicitly recognized many of the claims of the disenfranchised. The Dorrites should have been able to exploit this concession to good advantage but apparently let it slip.

The state of Rhode Island now had two governments, both claiming legitimacy! Could the issue be resolved without resort to force?

The conservatives, now organized into the newly formed Law and Order party, began to take action against this threat to their entrenched interests. 1) They rammed the so-called Algerine Law through the legislature. This law proscribed acts of subversion or treason against the Rhode Island government and specified stiff penalties for violators. It was aimed specifically at the Dorrites and amounted to a declaration of martial law throughout the state. 2) The conservatives began a campaign of pressure and intimidation against the more respectable elements among the proponents of the People's Constitution, now popularly referred to as Dorrites. 3) Gov. Sam King sent a delegation to President John Tyler to ask for the support of the Federal government in case of civil disturbance.

In April 1842 a statewide election was held under the People's Constitution in complete disregard of the Algerine Law. Thomas Dorr was elected governor, and a host of other supporters of the People's Government were elected to various state and local positions (small wonder—they were the only ones running for office under the new constitution!). Its petition to the Charter government for the use of the State House having been denied, the new government assembled on May 3, 1842, in an unfinished foundry building in Providence. Apparently the delegates assumed, with incredible naivete, that the Charter government would soon "pack it in," much as the Federal government under the Articles of Confederation had, some 50 years earlier, when the new Federal Constitution was ratified.

In early May 1842 the tension was mounting fast in Providence. Business and commerce were at a standstill, everyone awaiting the outcome of the confrontation between the two rival governments. After a brief two-day session the People's Legislature adjourned without gaining control of the State House, archives, or law courts. At this crucial time, with the balance of power in sway, Dorr slipped out of Providence for two weeks to seek support, or at least an assurance of nonintervention, from the Federal government. Tyler was noncommittal. Dorr returned in mid-May to find the situation deteriorating, his support crumbling, largely due to the inaction of himself and his principle supporters. It was said by some that Dorr had lost his nerve, since it was rumored that he had left Providence just ahead of an attempt of Charter authorities to arrest him under the Algerine Law.

Dorr decided that a bold strike was called for if he was to regain his fast-dwindling support. He chose to take the Providence Arsenal, a key symbol of state authority. The Dorrites gathered late in the evening of May 17, planning to attack shortly after midnight. The battle of the Providence Arsenal has been described by many as a comedy of errors, as indeed it was, but it was the decisive turning point of the rebellion. Thomas Dorr placed his followers in front of the Arsenal and demanded its surrender. He was refused. Around midnight a dense fog rolled in off Narragansett Bay, and when the fog cleared out around dawn most of Dorr's militia had apparently cleared out with it. Before retreating Dorr ordered the firing of his only two cannon at the Arsenal's main gate. The guns wouldn't fire, either because the wicks had been dampened by the fog or because the cannoneers hadn't loaded them properly. Dorr fled; the rebellion was crushed.

He hid in Conneticut for a month, returning in late June for a last stand on Acote's Hill in the town of Chepachet, in the northwestern corner of Rhode Island. He had been assured of substantial support, but when he arrived he found fewer than 200 ready to continue the fight against the Charter government. Receiving word that 3,000 state militiamen were marching on Chepachet, Dorr sent the opposing commander a letter of surrender and fled again, this time to New Hampshire, where he stayed for over a year. He finally returned to Providence in October 1843. He was immediately arrested, tried, convicted of treason, and sentenced to life imprisonment at hard labor. After a little more than a year in prison, Governor King pardoned him, and Thomas Dorr was released, broken in health and spirit, to live out his remaining few years in relative seclusion in his native Providence.

The most important consequences of the Dorr Rebellion lie in the judicial precedents set in the Federal courts during the years following the uprising. The most important of the court cases was Luther v. Borden.

On June 29, 1842, in Warren, Rhode Island, some militiamen, claiming to be acting under martial law, had broken into the house of Dorrite activists Martin and Rachel Luther (no relation to the early suffragist Seth Luther). Not finding Luther, they roughed up his mother and household help. Luther himself had fled across the border to Massachusetts. In November 1842 Luther filed suit in Federal court charging Borden and his band with illegal trespass under the People's Constitution, which Luther claimed had been the rightful law of Rhode Island at the time of the assault. The case was first argued in the Federal Circuit Court for Rhode Island in 1843. The judges were totally antipathetic to the rebel cause, and a directed verdict of "not guilty" by the jury was a foregone conclusion.

The case was immediately appealed. It was not until early 1848 that the case was argued in the Supreme Court by some of the foremost constitutional experts of the time. For the Dorrites (Luther), Benjamin F. Hallett, a leading Massachusetts Democrat; George Turner, who had helped defend Dorr in his trial for treason; and Nathan Clifford, then Attorney General of the United States, serving in a private capacity. For the defense (Borden), John Whipple, a leading Law and Order partisan, and Daniel Webster, then nearing the height of his famed oratorical powers.

Arguing for the plaintiff, Hallett made these points: the people of Rhode Island had overwhelmingly ratified the People's Constitution in a free and open election; sovereignty taking precedence over any particular forms, procedures, or circumstances previously set up for the people's governance, including the legislature itself; therefore "there was no rebellion, because a new fundamental law was established,…no treason, for a new oath and a new allegiance grew out of this fundamental change of law" (quoted from Hallett by Marvin E. Gettleman in The Dorr Revolution: A Study in American Radicalism, 1833-1849, p. 137). The real act of rebellion, Hallett contended, was committed by the Charterites, in opposing the clearly expressed desires of the rightful citizens of Rhode Island. Hallett devoted a considerable portion of his time to a discussion of the "anomalous" and "lawless" martial law. He urged the Court to reject the then (and still) current notion that a state had the right to create, with a stroke of the pen, "military despotism." Finally, Hallett urged the Court not to evade the central and crucial question of the nature of popular sovereignty. He asked it to decide unambiguously which of the two state governments had in fact been legitimate at the time of the trespass.

The defense—Whipple leading off, followed by Webster—aggressively countered Hallett's arguments. Whipple claimed that the adoption of the Federal Constitution had ended forever the right of revolution in the United States and that the established government (state or national) had the right to use any means to suppress rebellion. Webster continued, granting that the people are sovereign but claiming that they can exercise this sovereignty only "through the prescribed forms of law." He pointed out that if any person or group could set aside the laws of a state, even its constitution, at will, then that state would soon degenerate into anarchy. Anyone would be able to set aside an unfavorable court ruling simply by declaring himself to be an adherent of some government other than the established one, under which, presumably, the act in question would be considered legal. Neither Whipple nor Webster really addressed himself to the fact that an overwhelming majority of the people of Rhode Island had in fact ratified the new constitution, nor did they adequately explore the question of how change is to be initiated within a government when that government is highly resistant to reform.

In January 1849 the Supreme Court, in a decision written by Chief Justice Taney, ruled against the Dorrites. Taney held that his Court did not have jurisdiction over questions of intrastate political sovereignty. In addition, a ruling for the Dorrites would in effect make outlaws of the officers of the Charter government and would result in endless legal wrangling over any or all acts enacted by the Charterites in the years since the rebellion.

Thus was Dorr's war brought to a final end by the decision of the highest court in the land. The rebellion was a failure, although it had pressured the Charter government into grudging reforms, including an enlarged franchise. But the forcible repression of the revolt, combined with the adverse court decisions, served notice to the people of the United States that the roles of government as servant and of the people as master, as envisioned by Jefferson and others, were changing. Samuel Eliot Morison, writing in the Oxford History of the American People, (1972), makes this comment on the decision of the Court: "The effect of that decision, to this day, has been to deny constitutional reform in certain states, including Massachusetts, unless by permission of the government which needs to be reformed."

Dorr's war presents us with a fascinating case history of an attempt to effect radical reform. It provides an almost unique spectacle of two peaceably instituted, peaceably elected governments contending for jurisdiction over the same geographical area. Of course there was never any thought of attempting to implement a system of competitive, coequal governments (or protective agencies).

Modern libertarians, indeed, political reformists of all persuasions, can draw a number of lessons. First, educational efforts, no matter how successful, may not be enough to effect reform. If State power is closely held in the hands of a few, the few will guard that power jealously. By 1842 a large majority of the citizens of Rhode Island were convinced of the need for reform, but only the immediate threat of revolution induced any (grudging) attempts toward change on the part of the ruling elite. Second, any efforts to oppose or reform the State must be well organized if they are to succeed at all. Those involved must be aware of the implications of their actions and must be ready to risk everything or nothing at all. The Dorrites were not initially prepared to take the full measures required to bring their revolt to a successful conclusion and so, at critical junctures, were hesitant or vacillated.

The final question is more personal in nature; there is no universal answer. How far does one allow oneself to be pushed by the State before pushing back? At what point is one, as an individual, willing to abandon the security of family, home, and property in order to try to change or eliminate a regime viewed as oppressive? At what point does one cease attempts to educate, to promote civil disobedience, to win at the ballot box? What does one do when his breaking point is reached—leave? drop out? take up arms against a sea of troubles and, by opposing, end them? It is always easy for armchair politicians and coffee-klatch philosophers to answer such questions. It is another matter entirely to act on such answers. For all his errors, Thomas Dorr met the challenges of his day and place as best he knew how.

At the foot of Acote's Hill there is a large boulder, fixed to it a bronze plaque:

Erected by
The State of Rhode Island
In Memory and Honor of

1805 - 1854

of Distinguished Lineage
of Brilliant Talents
Eminent in Scholarship
A Public Spirited Citizen
Lawyer, Educator, Statesman
Advocate of Popular Sovereignty
Framer of the People's Constitution
of 1842
Elected Governor under it
Adjudged Revolutionary 1842
Principles acknowledged Right 1912

"I stand before you with the greatest
confidence in the final verdict of my

The right of suffrage is the
guardian of our liberties."

The people of Rhode Island have not forgotten Thomas Dorr. Neither should we.

A computer systems analyst and programmer, David E. Long is the chairman of the Massachusetts Libertarian Party and is a member of the LP's national Executive Committee.